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The feminist mutant movie about cannibalism and chaos

We speak to director Julia Ducournau about her new shock horror and the three taboos in humanity – ‘murder, incest and cannibalism’

When Julia Ducournau’s feminist body horror Raw played at TIFF, audience members passed out in the aisles. Was it the sight of a friendly face devouring human flesh? Or the uncompromising depiction of a teenage girl’s sexual awakening? Gruesome the gore may be at times, Raw’s pleasures are in its smart, unconventional, wickedly funny take on the coming-of-age genre. Unpredictable to the end, it depicts the post-adolescent tightrope journey of discovering your body, your desires, and whether anyone can be trusted with these secrets.

In Raw, Garance Marillier plays Justine, a student entering veterinary school and, by default, its blood-soaked hazing rituals. This includes swallowing a raw rabbit kidney which, for Justine, a lifelong vegetarian, leads to a transformation. Soon, she develops a body rash, a sexual appetite, and a taste for something meatier. Justine’s wildchild older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) seems to know what’s up, and her non-judgemental gay flatmate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) asks a question: is she into S&M, or something kinkier?

With cannibalism acting as a metaphor for sex, growing up, and an immeasurable lust for life, let’s just say Raw serves up plenty to chew on. Earlier this week, we spoke to Julia Ducournau about societal taboos, French hip-hop, and the dangers of repressing our animal nature.

Why did you pick a veterinary school as the setting? I mean, it’d be a different film if they were training to be accountants.

Julia Ducournau: I think accountant school could be creepy. But no, the reason for vet school is to have the presence of animals onscreen as a constant reminder of the dilemma inside Justine. She’s in between these two worlds of animals and people. She’s fighting her body.

Why is cannibalism such a taboo compared to other types of murder? There are films like Basic Instinct that make the killer a love interest, but that doesn’t really happen with cannibals.

Julia Ducournau: That’s true. There are three taboos in humanity: murder, incest and cannibalism. In movies like Se7en, the murderer, Kevin Spacey, does these horrible things, but he’s still a human being. There are way fewer movies about incest, but generally, the perpetrators in those are treated like human beings.

“We used to do this when we were kids, but try it today: if you pretend to bite someone’s hand, your teeth will have a strange, ticklish feeling. Your teeth will want to go further” – Julia Ducournau

Cannibal movies are very different because they treat cannibals like “they”. They’re always a group of people that are anonymous. They’re treated like aliens from out of space, or hoards of zombies. They’re treated like they don’t exist. It’s incredibly weird because they do exist, just as murderers and people who commit incest do. I think it’s a problem with accepting the fact that cannibalism is part of humanity, whether we like it or not.

We used to do this when we were kids, but try it today: if you pretend to bite someone’s hand, your teeth will have a strange, ticklish feeling. Your teeth will want to go further. Your head will say no, but the curiosity of your body will want to go further. That’s what’s super troubling. It’s inside us, and it’s still a big taboo that we prefer to see from afar.

Is that why there have been extreme reactions to Raw? I saw a Q&A you did where someone angrily heckled you.

Julia Ducournau: Some people don’t want to accept the reality. Personally, I don’t think you can grow as a person or society by repressing things. Me, certainly not as an artist. If I only saw a Disney version of life, I wouldn’t make movies. If I’m asking what it means to be human, I have to tackle the edges of the subject. My movie is also about love – and too much love, even. There’s also a danger in freedom: if you follow all your impulses, you hurt people and cross a line. If you repress the dark side of humanity, you can’t think about that.

Most teen movies have a romantic storyline, but Justine gets paired with a gay male flatmate. Was Adrien always gay in the script?

Julia Ducournau: Yeah, always. Adrien represents the eyes of the audience on Justine. He looks at her with an open mind. He looks at her in a non-sexual way, which is very important, because I didn’t want to sexualise her body. And if he was straight, at the start of the movie we would have all thought, “OK, they’re going to fuck.” We would have spent the whole movie waiting for them to fuck.

For me, their relationship is way more than that. They’re everything to each other. They’re friends, they’re brothers, they’re lovers. They’re everything they need in this chaos that surrounds them. And it’s not interesting if you’re focused on the fact they’re going to fuck.

There’s already a complicated relationship between the sisters: the rivalry, the bit when they try to piss like guys, and Justine wondering if Alexia represents her future. And then there’s the cannibal layer as well…

Julia Ducournau: It’s a cinematic relationship. With sisters and brothers, you can go from love to hate to love to hate – and you don’t need to explain why you go from one extreme to the other. It’s good for me as a director and screenwriter because no one wants to write shitty scenes like: “We really need to talk, because you said something I didn’t like.” No one wants to hear that.

When you have two people that are brothers or sisters, you don’t question why they can love or hate each other from one minute to the other. The bond is blood. No matter what happens, you always come back, and that’s why it’s super-interesting.

There have been a few films recently, like The Neon Demon and The Bad Batch, about cannibalism. I’m not sure there were that many a few years ago?

Julia Ducournau: Yeah, I was so surprised. I finished mixing the movie three days before Cannes. When I got there and learned there were two or three other selected movies about cannibalism, I thought it was amazing. I spent five years wondering if one person on the planet would see my movie and maybe understand it. The cannibalism in my movie is political. So the fact other movies are talking about it, it means something about society. We’re not talking about sci-fi; it’s about monsters that actually exist and are humans.

“The cannibalism in my movie is political. So the fact other movies are talking about it, it means something about society. We’re not talking about sci-fi; it’s about monsters that actually exist and are humans.” – Julia Ducournau

I looked up the French rap song that plays when Justine puts lipstick on in the mirror.

Julia Ducournau: Yeah, by Orties. They’re actually two sisters that are twins. I know them.

And then I found that Orties also do a song called “Cannibales”. But instead, you use “Bitchier Than Any Bitches”.

Julia Ducournau: At first I wanted to put “Cannibales” in it, but it was too literal, and I wanted the other song because it’s more about the female body. They really take on the vocabulary and sexuality of rap and apply it to men. They have a natural authority. They’re so strong and in command of their bodies, that when they talk about men and sex, you don’t laugh. You believe what they say. They have the same authority as any male rappers. I know the subtitles are pretty good, but, in French rap, it’s even more hardcore.

The chorus is something like: “Fuck 69 / Give me 666”.

Julia Ducournau: Yeah, I have a lot of respect for that. And I love that they’re a hybrid between gothic and rap. Their music videos are in graveyards, and they’re wearing black latex. It’s crazy. They’re these feminist mutants. But my movie is also a feminist mutant.

Raw is in cinemas on April 7